A Docent’s Life for Me

Central Docents, Central Library,
Boxing of damaged books
Volunteers clean and check the books against the card catalog to note “survivors” of the fire. Throughout the recovery process, the media showed constant interest in the progress. [Los Angeles Public Library Institutional Collection]

I have always loved books. When I was five, I pleaded with my mother for books...Little Golden Books, about lambs and engines and whatever...and she helped me learn to read them. In junior high and high school, I was a library helper. (I learned to make change when a kind librarian taught me not to try to do mental math—subtracting the fine [35 cents] from the money given [$1]. I always got lost somewhere between “borrowing” and “carrying” and felt stupid. She counseled, “Just start with the fine and then take out the money to get to the amount they gave you.” Wow! If you know the trick, it’s so simple!).

I love to read. It’s my greatest pleasure in Life. But it’s more...I love books! No Kindle or E-books for me. I love the feel, the weight, the smell, the act of holding a book, turning the pages, choosing the just-right bookmark when I start down a new path of adventure and learning. I love new books, so crisp and bright and pristine. There’s even a “new book” smell! But older books are also wonderful, filled with memories of previous readers: dog ears (I gently unfold the corner), sometimes underlines or “corrections” or opinions, drips, wrinkles, frayed page edges...

One day, in the Los Angeles Times, a “volunteer opportunity” caught my eye. I had been looking for an appealing way to spend some free time and help out somewhere. “The Los Angeles Public Library is seeking volunteers to prepare books for the opening of the temporary location of the Central Library”, and a phone number. Books...Library...Perfect!

I called the phone number and was told to come to 433 South Spring Street (parking provided). When I arrived, I was sent up to an upper floor of “The Annex”, the building next to the library’s future home. I walked into a huge open space, with people working at long tables. Scattered among the tables were several pallets, piled high with cardboard boxes. I was shown to an empty chair at a table and given my instructions. “Get a box from the pallet. Take out each book, inspect it for damage, wipe it down with this (provided) cloth. Take it to the card catalog (which had been moved to a nook of the warehouse-like space), find the catalog card, put it in the book so it’s visible, and draw a small red (red pencil provided) circle on the title page, return it to the box. When all the box’s books are done, put the box over there (point) and get a new box.” (Next time you pull a book off central’s shelves, look at the title page. If there’s a red circle, you have a survivor in your hands!) Oh, yes. One more detail. “If you don’t find the book’s catalog card, write the title, author, and Dewey number on a slip (small stack provided) and put it in the book.”

I got the chance to work twice before the job was done. What fun!! Every box had surprises...delights. I never knew what the books would be: science, history, art, business, religion. Like Little Jack Horner, I could “stick in my thumb (and attached hand) and pull out a plum!” We volunteers often showed off our prizes to each other...and, of course, we had all been told to take anything published before 1850 or that looked unusual or valuable to one of the librarians supervising, for his/her decision. (The rare books collection grew fourfold, thanks to this book-by-book look at the accumulation of 100 years of book purchases.) We didn’t know at the time but our “survey” had a second purpose: preparing the books for entry into the library's first computerized catalog. By today’s standards, the computer was a Model-T but it was the beginning.

women cleaning bookswomen seated with book cart in front of her and a pencil in her mouthman with a camera filming 2 people cleaning bookswomen cleaning books
Volunteers clean and check the books against the card catalog to note “survivors” of the fire. Throughout the recovery process, the media showed constant interest in the progress. [Los Angeles Public Library Institutional Collection]

Now, the pallets were empty. Job finished. Well, maybe not... A couple of months later, “volunteers to help shelve books, to prepare for the opening of the temporary...” This time, I came with two friends. Again, we worked twice, putting those boxes of books onto the new shelving in the departments.

The term “back-breaking” was always just an expression until we starting putting books up in social sciences on the temp’s 5th floor. Four boxes arrive. We shelved them, nice and neat. Six more boxes arrive. One will fit at the end of our previous work. The other five? Right in the middle of those nice neat rows... Move these books down three shelves. Put them in there. Four more boxes. Yes, you guessed it. Move those books again.

We worked hard and left exhausted but happy, leaving behind orderly rows of information, waiting for someone to pull one of them down and use the information to advance...or even change...their life.

Some months later, yet another “Volunteer Opportunity” appeared in the Times. This one said the Los Angeles Public Library docents were recruiting volunteers for training to conduct tours of the central library. There was a phone number if you were interested. Interested? It took my breath away!

Over the years, Central Library's librarians had taken interested school groups and adult organizations on requested tours. Proposition 13, in 1978, drastically slashed funds to the library. Every budget had to be cut “to the bone”. Central’s director, Loyce Pleasants, and her assistant, Betty Gay, began to look into volunteers to take over tours. In 1980, the first library docent class graduated. Though docents are a common sight at museums, LAPL’s docents are believed to be the first associated with a public library.

I called and an application was sent to me. I filled it out, mailed it back, and was asked to come in for an interview. I told no one (except my husband) that I had applied. I didn’t want to be embarrassed if I was turned down. I had no degrees, no credentials...I was a waitress. I felt honored when my interview resulted in my being invited to training!

There were only four of us in that first class after the library re-opened on Spring Street. I still, 27 years later, look back on my 12-week training as one of the most amazing experiences of my life! I traded shifts with an amiable waiter at my job so I could have Wednesdays free. Each week, I drove downtown (an experience in itself) to learn about a new set of treasures in another of central’s departments. No room here to catalog the wonders. They’re all still there, available if sometimes unnoticed, overshadowed now by the overwhelming beauty of the restored Goodhue. There’s a very substantial reason Los Angeles is always first or second in public library statistics...and it’s not the art.

The temp was a unique space for a library. It wasn’t in a “good’ part of downtown, Spring Street, on the edge of Skid Row. Designed by Los Angeles’s premier architectural father/son team, John and Donald Parkinson in 1928, the 11-story Title Insurance Building was an Art Deco delight in itself. Like nesting dolls, the library was a treasure within a treasure, spread over six public floors. The children’s department perched to the left of the beautiful marble and bronze lobby. The huge, largely open space of the 2nd floor (with historic elements still in place) was divided between art/recreation in the front and history/genealogy in the back. In the northwest corner, the old Title Insurance vault, complete with a foot-thick steel door and combination lock (just like in the movies!), was packed with rare books. Oh! And the pneumatic tube system that once rushed messages and important paperwork from one floor to another was still there...though I think its useful time was over.

The 3rd floor was smaller and stripped of the Art Deco detail by an earlier design center remodel, as were all the other upper floors. Business/economics shared it with the copy center (which included the historic magazines and newspapers). Four was science/technology, five was social sciences, and six was again divided between literature/fiction and international languages (the once-used term “foreign” having been banished).

We docents loved the library and tried—really hard—to bring tours in, but we didn’t have much luck. A few boy scout troops, a few ESL, English as a second language, tours from downtown’s Evans adult school...that was pretty much the total of people wanting to see the temp.

exterior view of the temporary Central Library
Exterior view of the temporary Central Library at 433 S Spring Street, [Los Angeles Public Library Institutional Collection]

With so few tours and time on our hands, most docents chose a department to work in, helping with projects the librarians no longer had time for. There were docents cataloging menus, working with photos in history, playbills in literature. A docent put together a scrapbook of clippings on the fire; another, a scrapbook of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Both are invaluable resources now. My project was great fun, if not of great value. I worked at cataloging the doll collection in children’s, an informal accumulation over many years of ethnic dolls, illustrating national and/or regional costumes. They were brought back by vacationing librarians, for use in programs and talks, to help young people understand and develop a world view of their own.

Valuable or not, I loved the countless hours I spent with those little persons. I learned a lot, using Central Library’s resources to trace “doll marks”, identify national costumes, and more. I helped settle those children’s denizens into acid-free tissue and boxes, patting down hair, straightening limbs, easing wrinkles and creases in costumes. It would keep them safe...and ready for their next appearance. And we all marked time until The Big Day.

I considered myself a novice docent, not much experience, a true “newbie”. So I was startled when I was asked to become the docent president in 1992. Whoa! I felt brand-new...I had never even been in a “club” since high school, let alone be the leader. But the core docents, the ones who had kept the organization going, promised to stand behind me and help...so I agreed.

A buzz was starting around the temp. The new construction on the Goodhue had “topped out” with flags and a ceremony. We were going to move again...back...SOON! We recruited that spring and got a huge class, 30 or so people eager to learn and be a part of the next big step...the Goodhue. During the training, there was one wonderful day when Betty Gay, now Central Library’s director, came to tell us about the progress. We gathered around a long table in history, many standing behind the seats, and listened while she described what was happening and then showed us samples of carpeting and upholstery...beautiful samples! She made it real...it was going to happen!

That summer, the library also began a campaign to issue the new library cards, in advance of the re-opening. No more little white paper cards! The card was now sturdy plastic, bar-coded, snazzy dark blue and orange. “Check It Out!” was printed boldly on it! Volunteers, many of them docents, sat at tables and took applications...around downtown, at events, at shopping malls, anywhere foot traffic brought people. I spent a hot day at the zoo, greeting and explaining and collecting applications.

We docents were invited for a “construction tour”, led by City Architect Bill Holland. We donned hard hats at the 5th Street entrance and enjoyed an insider look at the work, with an insider to comment! My best memory? We climbed the north stairs, past the Sphinxes under their protective canvas covers, and down the short hall to the Rotunda. There were heavy plastic curtains closing off the entryway. We brushed them aside and stepped in... I can still remember the moment of entering that space. My first thought was that it was like a cathedral...elegant, late-afternoon shadowed, austere. The marvelous chandelier was on the floor in the center of the space but the Cornwell murals stood guard to protect it. Afterward, we walked down the second-floor hall to an abrupt end and looked over into the gaping hole of the future atrium.

construction of new central librarycleaning of rotunda in central library
Limited tours of the construction site were given to staff and volunteers. Here are views of the Atrium and Rotunda under construction, [Photo credit: Renny Day/Bob Day, Los Angeles Public Library Institutional Collection]

We knew that when we moved back to the Goodhue, we were not going to be able to use the tour we had learned at the temp. We needed brand new ideas. So, five of us, the "tour committee", went on another visit to Goodhue, this time taking notes and drawing little maps and looking critically at what should, or should not, be included in an hour. Our ideas were combined (and underwent a lot of debate) and we came up with the new tour, limited to the 1st and 2nd floors since that’s all we could see, the atrium still just a huge empty space.

A date was set! The Goodhue would re-open on October 3, 1993! The temp closed in May so professional movers could prepare to transfer 120-plus years of accumulated knowledge from one location to another...seamlessly. Now the docents were (temporarily) homeless. We met at the Chinatown Branch’s community room; we met at a docent’s home; we met in a too-small room at administration’s headquarters, with people sitting on window sills and radiators, fortunately, cold in August. The question of the hour...day...MONTH?! When would we have access to the Goodhue, to practice our new tour? Through that long summer, we were repeatedly given dates, only to have them canceled. The construction wasn’t finished...

The other hot question? What should we wear for the big event? A division of opinion: some wanted an official look, blazer with slacks or skirt; others, more maverick, wanted no dress code. (The docents had always worn simple business/casual clothes for tours.) We turned to our librarian advisor, Joan Bartel, to decide. Her answer? White shirts or blouses, black slacks or skirts, docent pin, and a bright yellow ribbon with “Los Angeles Public Library Opening Celebration...Docent...October 3, 1993” printed on it. Easy, comfy, good!

yellow docent ribbon
Central Library Docents wore a simple yellow ribbon to identify themselves on opening day, [Image courtesy of Delores McKinney]

Finally! A date for us to be in the Goodhue...to practice...even though it was October 2nd, Saturday before the Sunday opening. We met at 10 a.m. in one of the 5th Street meeting rooms, everyone glowing with excitement! As president, I started through a shortlist of reminders for the next day. It was maybe 10:20 when the loudspeaker system announced: “All unauthorized persons must leave the building at once.”

What?! We looked at each other...were we authorized? We thought we were, but...The question was settled a few minutes later when a person came to the room’s door and said we had to leave. We all nodded agreement. The door closed. Drat! Foiled again!

We conspired... We couldn’t go as a group but maybe if we went singly or in twos...If asked, we’d say we’re on our way out, as directed... Maybe we could at least sneak a look around... Personally, I saw the now-pristine rotunda, chandelier restored to its rightful prominence, and the atrium, no longer a chasm but all decked out with escalators and terra cotta pillars and gleaming green floors, extending downward... And huge colorful chandeliers! Amazing! Enough...I fled before I could be evicted!

October 3rd dawned a perfect Los Angeles day---warm, but not too warm, sunny and bright, cool breezes wafting by. We, docents, met at 10 a.m., in our new docent office (Wahoo!). We overflowed into the adjacent staff room. I brought plastic “champagne” glasses and (not plastic) champagne and sparkling apple juice and we all, in our black and white and yellow ribbons, joyously toasted a long and happy life for our beloved Central Library. Then we trooped down to lower level one in the atrium for a group picture or two.

crowds gather for library opening 1993
An enormous crowd showed up for the grand re-opening and 5th Street was closed off to accommodate the excited group, [Photo courtesy of Gary Leonard]

Now, it was time to go outside for the ceremonies, scheduled for 11 a.m. We squeezed out the north door and settled among the large crowd already waiting, spread along both sides of 5th. It was only a few minutes until we heard the opening notes of the Trojan victory song...and the crimson and gold U.S.C. band began to flow down the Bunker Hill Steps to the crowd’s loud approval. After a few stirring pieces, when the music stilled, we could hear rippling applause and cheers coming toward us down 5th. A bright-polished 1931 fire engine slowly pulled into sight, carrying a boatload of important people, waving and smiling. They moved to a decorated platform and there were “remarks”, most of them thankfully short. Then, Mayor Richard Riordan and City Librarian Elizabeth Martinez cut the ribbon across the north door (When did that appear there?) and declared the library open. The big bronze doors swung wide...and we all surged in!

We had already decided that tours wouldn’t be possible; the library would be too crowded. (We had no idea HOW crowded it would be, though!) Instead, docents were stationed around the library, at the doors, in the lobby and rotunda, in the departments, to answer questions and welcome people. The first couple of hours, there were SO many people...it was hard to even move. It was thrilling! After the long drought of visitors at the temp, we were now overflowing with celebrating Angelenos.

Huell Howser at library opening
Huell Howser was one of many media personalities at the opening. He dedicated a full episode of his popular program to visiting the Central Library reopening, [Photo courtesy of Gary Leonard]

My “15 Minutes of Fame”, though it was actually more like “3 minutes”, came when another docent told me, “Huell Howser is looking for you. He’s in the rotunda.” I threaded my way through the happy crowds and found him upstairs.

He was an amazing man...so comfortable to be with that you forgot the camera and simply talked to this interested guy who asked questions...(That night...finally home, fed, and rested...my husband and I watched “Visiting” on KCET and I was delighted with my small part in his now-preserved record of our wonderful day! Best moment? Telling him that while the Goodhue was gorgeous...with its marble and murals and new art... What really mattered were the incomparable collections...that deep, rich, ever-nourishing well of information on every one of the MILES of shelves!)

What a day!

We docents had an ultra-busy schedule of tours now that the Goodhue was back. It seemed everyone wanted to see our lovely library! We had two “walk-in” tours a day and sometimes as many as six other scheduled tours in October and into November. We had guessed that Monday (after the celebration) would be a normal day though, back to business. The first trial of our new tour came at 11 a.m., our first “walk-in”. Kathy Tusquellas and I would see how it worked in practice. We had 45 people waiting! We divided them, did the tour, and arrived back in the lobby about noon...to find it simply awash with visitors! Our “Monday-to-Friday” business and working neighbors were here to welcome Central Library back! I started just walking up to people and asking, “Can I help you?” People asked me:

“How do I get a library card?” “Where’s the history department?” “I want a book about fashion.” “When’s the next tour?” “What hours are you open?” “Where are the magazines?” “I’m interested in genealogy.” “Do you have best sellers?” The most frequent question? “Where are the books?”

For a month after that, we scheduled docents in the lobby for two hours around noon to simply answer questions and give directions, in addition to docents doing the tours. The library responded as well to its new-found popularity. There was one person issuing library cards that first Monday. The next day, there were four and still, there were lines of patient patrons each day, waiting for their new orange and blue card.

Our tour underwent a major change some days after the opening. I was in the history department for the first time...the bottom of the atrium...and came out to ride the escalators to the first floor. I looked up...and caught my breath!! Those chandeliers of Thermon Statom...the ones that looked like children’s art from the first or second floor...were magnificent from below!! We had to change our tour!! No tour should leave without that view...and, now, no tour does.

crowds view new central library 1993
Opening day crowd move through the Atrium under Thermon Statom’s impressive chandeliers, [Los Angeles Public Library Institutional Collection]

As the docents grew accustomed to their new venue, there were a few glitches. A docent came breathlessly into the office...“The Ivanhoe murals are gone! I took my tour to see them and they’re gone!” This was serious indeed! It took a visit to international languages on the first floor to assure myself they were really still there... Then I realized what had happened. The docent was on the second floor, in art/recreation, where there’s an identical “nook”...same shape, same size...that houses the sports collection...and has no murals, instead of the first floor. Not the first...or the last...mistake made but, all in all, the docents did a yeoman’s job of touring all our new...and old...admirers.

The people of Los Angeles had nearly lost one of their greatest treasures but it had been saved and had risen, Phoenix-like...bigger, stronger...historic beauty preserved, new beauty added...and they embraced it with love.

Please join us for a docent-led tour of the Central Library.

Written by Delores McKinney, Central Library Docent